The Red Baron
Posted on 15th April 2021
There are some people whose name surpasses even their exploits and who become synonymous with a certain era and certain events. One such man was Manfred von Richtofen, better known to the world as the Red Baron.
He was born in Kleinsburg near Breslau in Lower Silesia the son of an aristocratic Prussian Junker family. Never particularly academic as a child he preferred the outdoor life that was reserved for children of the aristocracy - riding, shooting and hunting wild boar. He was also a distinguished sportsman who enjoyed fencing and gymnastics. He became an Army Cadet while still at school before being commissioned an Officer in the Uhlan Cavalry.
During the early months of the Great War, he served in reconnaissance units on both the Western and Eastern Fronts but as barbed wire and machine guns began to dominate the battlefield cavalry operations became increasingly impossible and they were soon reduced to serving as foot soldiers. A life of mundane trench warfare held no appeal for the dashing young aristocrat, so he applied to join the fledgling Imperial German Air Force. No doubt a few strings were pulled for much to his surprise his application was successful, and he was transferred in May 1915. In October of that year, he began his training as a pilot.
His career as a fighter pilot had an inauspicious start when he crash-landed his plane first time out. But he soon got the hang of flying and grew to love it. On 26 April 1916 in the skies over Verdun as the battle raged below, he downed a Nieuport Fighter Plane. It was his first registered kill.
He was to commemorate the occasion by having a special silver cup custom made by a jeweller in Berlin. This he was to do a further sixty times before the Allied blockade of Germany saw the supply of silver dwindle too next to nothing. The jeweller enjoying his association with a war hero wished to continue producing the cups but the Baron would not accept anything made of base metals and cancelled the contract.
He was to accumulate a great many kills quickly and his reputation soon began to grow. But he was never a reckless pilot and he rarely took chances. It was even said that he lacked a certain panache but he was never less than calm, confident and self-assured.
He only ever attacked if he thought there was the likelihood of a kill, and he did not subscribe to the view held by many of his comrades that they were the cavalry of the skies. Flying for him was not about single combat but success and victory. It was not a contest of gladiators but a death struggle between enemies.
On 23 November 1916 he notched up his most notable victory when he downed the British fighter ace Lanoe Hawker VC. It had been a long a long dogfight and Hawker had decided to break it off and make for his own lines but was killed by a single bullet to the head before he could do so.
In January 1917, his sixteenth confirmed kill saw him awarded the Blue Max the highest military honour for a pilot and promoted to Squadron Leader. Following his promotion, he took the uncharacteristically flamboyant step of painting his Albatross D.II Fighter Plane bright red - the legend of the Red Baron was born.
Richtofen soon imbued his Squadron not only with a fighting spirit but also a sense of teamwork. They fought not just the enemy but for each other and though he had not ordered them to do so the members of the Squadron also painted their planes red.
To do so should have been unwise for it made them stand out in the often-overcast skies of northern France but instead it seemed to sow fear into the minds of their enemies and his Squadron, Jasta II, soon became known as the Flying Circus, it was to become the most famous Squadron in aviation history and the Red Baron was to lead it to unparalleled success.
As a man, Richtofen was never popular he was humourless taciturn, arrogant, aloof and distant from his men. Indeed, it was said that the only time he was seen to show any real affection or be genuinely happy was when he was with his dog, Morinz. But he was nevertheless trusted, respected and admired. It could not be otherwise with so many victories to his name. In April 1917, alone, he downed 22 enemy planes including 4 in one day - his squadron was becoming a legend, and all involved with it shared in its success.
Back in Germany the dashing aristocrat was a propagandists dream, and the government exploited his fame to theutmost; he was a national hero and postcards appeared with his image on, songs were sung about him, poems written in praise of his exploits and stamps were issued in his honour. They actively encouraged the cult of the Red Baron but like all propaganda it was a hostage to fortune.
On 6 July 1917 while on a regular mission he stumbled into an ambush set by planes of the British 20 Squadron and in the ensuing dogfight he received multiple wounds to the head which rendered him temporarily blind. Even so, with his eyesight impaired and barely conscious he managed to land his plane safely.
The man credited with having downed the Red Baron was Lt Donald Cunnell but he had little time with which to enjoy his new-found fame being killed in action himself just six days later.
Richtofen's brush with death sent shock-waves throughout the German War Ministry and while convalescing from his wounds he was persuaded by the Propaganda Ministry to write his autobiography. He was also encouraged to use his injuries as an excuse to give up flying and take a desk job. They feared that his death would damage morale both at the front and at home. They told him that the British were determined to kill him and were now hunting him in packs.
Though he was shaken by the idea that he was being hunted like an animal he remained resolute in his determination to return to combat. But seemed he was a changed man. Afflicted by nausea and frequent headaches he spent a great deal of time alone in his room and appeared more hesitant. He also complained of suffering from double-vision.
Even so, he returned to combat in October 1917 and flying the three-winged Fokker DR -1 with which he is most closely associated continued to notch up victories, but his friends continued to fear for his safety.
On the morning of 21 April 1918, while on regular patrol the Red Baron set off in pursuit of a rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred "Wop" May. Aware of his partner’s inexperience Arthur "Roy" Brown now tried to intervene in the fight and though he was some distance away he went into a steep dive firing as he did so. Taken by surprise Richtofen nonetheless skilfully avoided the attack and was continuing his pursuit of May when he suddenly pulled away. Moments later he landed his plane behind British lines.
The jubilant Australian soldiers who rushed forward to take the famous Red Baron captive found him conscious but unable to speak. Before they could remove him from the plane, he took two sharp breaths and died. He had been killed by a single bullet wound to the chest.
For many years it was assumed that Roy Brown had been responsible for bringing down the Red Baron, but recent evidence has suggested that he may have been killed by machine-gun fire from the ground. If so, then he died of an uncharacteristic mistake for he had often preached to his men never fly so low as to make yourself vulnerable to ground fire.
Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, had 80 confirmed victories making him the most successful fighter ace of the Great War though the likelihood is he was at least part responsible for many. As befitted his status the British buried him with full military honours.
As it transpired his Squadron did not suffer unduly from his death and remained a formidable and much feared unit under the command of another dashing young aristocrat, Hermann Goering.
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